Exhibit: Mrs. Lincoln's 'Erratic' Behavior Was Due to Grief

She wasn't insane, just feeling deep loss of her husband, 3 children, per exhibit at Lincoln museum
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 3, 2021 9:05 AM CDT
Exhibit: Mrs. Lincoln's 'Erratic' Behavior Was Due to Grief
A photograph depicting President Abraham Lincoln and first lady Mary Lincoln, seen displayed at an exhibit on March 17, 2015, at the Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington.   (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

After Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, descended into a cycle of what History.com calls "erratic" behavior, complete with "unearthly shrieks" and "terrible convulsions." This behavior, considered an improper attention-grab at the time for women of her stature, led to her becoming a "laughingstock" and to her son Robert committing her to a mental institution in 1875. A new exhibit at the President Lincoln's Cottage museum in Washington, DC, however, points not to Mrs. Lincoln's sanity (or lack of it) as the reason for her breakdowns. Instead, it focuses on the multiple tragedies Lincoln endured throughout her life—including the death of three of her four children, as well as the assassination of her husband—and her very human reactions to those tragedies, per the Washington Post.

After the Lincolns' three boys died of various diseases before they reached age 19, Abraham Lincoln worked through his grief in "more socially acceptable ways," per the Post, such as spending long hours in his office, while Mrs. Lincoln tore out her hair, wailed constantly, and took part in seances. "Reflections on Grief and Child Loss—Understanding History (and Ourselves) Through Empathy" looks at her reaction through the lens of a mother's bereavement, comparing it to how modern-day families have experienced their own children's deaths. "I think society expected me to just move on," says one mother of a murdered 6-year-old boy. The exhibit isn't meant to help only grieving families, but also to assist others who want to offer comfort, with tips that weren't widely available to those who could've helped Mrs. Lincoln. "She grieved the losses of her children and her husband for the rest of her life," says Callie Hawkins, the cottage's programming director. "Even when it made other people uncomfortable." (This topic has been broached before.)

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